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Nigeria’s Legislature Is Siding With Autocracy

Democracy is at risk as Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s power grows unchecked.

By , a Nigerian journalist and writer based in Lagos, Nigeria.
Nigerian politicians celebrate the country’s independence.
(From left) Nigerian Speaker of the House of Representatives Femi Gbajabiamila, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, and Senate President Ahmad Lawan cut an anniversary cake during a ceremony to mark the 59th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence from England, in the capital of Abuja, Nigeria, on Oct. 1, 2019. Kola Sulaimon/AFP via Getty Images

After years of military rule, Nigeria finally transitioned to democracy in 1999. One of the hopes driving this shift was removing the president’s absolute power—something theoretically guaranteed by the separation of powers built into the 1999 constitution, which affirmed Nigeria as a full-fledged democratic country.

Instead, a recurring theme of Nigeria’s 22 years of democracy is the blurred lines between the executive and the legislative branches of government. Party politics are still dominated by powerful presidents, who use that power to effectively control the National Assembly, the country’s legislative branch. And that power, in turn, is used to restrict Nigerians’ freedom.

Today, Nigeria is seeing serious collusion between Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and the national legislature, with the ultimate goal of whittling down the freedoms guaranteed by the country’s constitution.

After years of military rule, Nigeria finally transitioned to democracy in 1999. One of the hopes driving this shift was removing the president’s absolute power—something theoretically guaranteed by the separation of powers built into the 1999 constitution, which affirmed Nigeria as a full-fledged democratic country.

Instead, a recurring theme of Nigeria’s 22 years of democracy is the blurred lines between the executive and the legislative branches of government. Party politics are still dominated by powerful presidents, who use that power to effectively control the National Assembly, the country’s legislative branch. And that power, in turn, is used to restrict Nigerians’ freedom.

Today, Nigeria is seeing serious collusion between Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and the national legislature, with the ultimate goal of whittling down the freedoms guaranteed by the country’s constitution.

Under its constitution, there are three branches of government: the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. Every four years, Nigerians elect the president and members of the legislature in separate elections—theoretically keeping the two branches independent.

But the system has never really worked. In 2002, just three years into democratic rule, Olusegun Obasanjo, who ruled between 1999 and 2007 as president after previously heading a junta, faced a rare impeachment attempt. He was accused of deploying troops for military operations that resulted in heavy civilian casualties without the approval of the National Assembly. That was just one among 17 other impeachable offenses. He survived—but the Senate president position was changed five times in eight years as he sought revenged. Obasanjo distrusted opposition of any kind and was accustomed to using the government’s resources to defeat his enemies. That pattern has continued, especially under the current administration.

The Nigerian presidential system has been stamped by decades of military rule, leaving an indelible imprint of the “strongman.” Obasanjo was a military head of state—and so was Buhari.

Nigeria’s first 16 years of democracy were dominated by the center-right People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In the buildup to the 2015 general elections, the All Progressives Congress (APC)—an amalgamation of different parties, including a former PDP faction—was formed to put an end to PDP rule. It succeeded, and Buhari emerged as the president, leading to the first defeat of an incumbent president in Nigeria, but cracks in the system soon began to emerge.

Against the APC’s wishes and in a smooth Machiavellian move, Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara became the Senate president and speaker of the House of Representatives, respectively, in the eighth National Assembly. APC senators-elect and representatives-elect were in a private meeting in Abuja, the capital, which ran long into the voting time. Saraki and Dogara teamed up with opposition members to emerge as the leaders, reserving the deputy Senate president position for an opposition senator. This polarized the legislature and the executive, despite both being under the same party at the time, creating frictions that led to, among many other issues, a budget impasse in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

After the presentation of the budget in 2019, Saraki wrote against the president in a published piece, where he blamed Buhari for the delays. But despite the problems and budget setbacks—and a National Assembly mired in corruption allegations itself—the legislature remained robustly independent from the president’s office.

However, Saraki lost the 2019 election, and this paved the way for the choice of Ahmad Lawan and Femi Gbajabiamila, APC’s long-standing preferences to lead the Senate and House of Representatives. Because, unlike Saraki, they lack substantial political bases of their own, this has made it easier for Buhari to extend his own reach. The ninth National Assembly, unlike its predecessor, has become the pliant arm of an ever-more authoritarian executive. On Jan. 23, 2019, Buhari ordered the removal of Nigeria’s chief justice on allegations of corruption in an unprecedented judicial intervention. There was no constitutional basis for this. The State Security Service, the country’s intelligence unit, has grown all-powerful by flaunting court orders, arresting journalists, and operating outside the law; an instance is the 2018 barricade of the National Assembly.

As Buhari extends his power, the legislature, especially its leadership, has been utterly acquiescent. The acquiescence has been dictated by a blind sense of party loyalty and an irrational sense of duty to the president rather than serving the country. Last year, the president ignored a legislative invitation to explain matters of insecurity.

Last October, thousands of Nigerian youths took to the streets nationwide in an unprecedented—and organic—protest against police brutality. Soldiers were ordered to disperse peaceful protesters, leading to at least 12 deaths, according to Amnesty International. But the legislature failed to act—and instead, reintroduced the anti-social media bill and an anti-protest bill to attempt to quell dissent.

The anti-protest bill seeks a five-year jail term for “unlawful protest.” Although the bill does not explicitly criminalize protests, its framing—which says when three or more persons are gathered in “a manner as to cause persons in the neighborhood to fear on reasonable grounds that the persons so assembled will tumultuously disturb the peace”—gives ample space for the authorities to act against effectively any gathering they wish. The bill even states “it is immaterial that the original assembling was lawful.”

Several months ago, Buhari posted a highly disturbing tweet that seemed to call for violence against locals in the wake of coordinated attacks on government facilities in the southeast, which has the strongest secession movement in the country. Twitter removed the tweet, citing violation of the company’s principles. The result was the indefinite suspension of Twitter in the country, again without complaint from the legislative branch. The shutdown was facilitated by the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, which is not constitutionally empowered to make such laws.

At a public hearing, the ministry asked the legislature to regulate social and online media. The ministries are part of the executive branch and as such have no power in matters of promulgation laws. It only serves to show the extent of collusion. What followed were two bills introduced by members of the legislature to amend the National Broadcasting Council and the Nigerian Press Council. The latter states a “board of council” must be created to “regulate the print media and related media houses.”

Both bills have now been suspended due to heavy criticism from the Nigerian media—but anybody who understands the workings of the Nigerian legislature knows such suspensions are often temporary and done only as a response to public anger. The bills are usually reintroduced, with little changed, soon afterward.

The legislature and the president do not always need to be at loggerheads. But collusion between the two only emboldens the executive’s well-proven despotic tendencies because it removes the mechanism for checks and balances. And with the judiciary’s already weakened power, paucity of funds and institutional corruption, Buhari’s and future presidents’ excesses will continue to go unchecked, save for an increasingly embattled media and oppressed public.

Ope Adetayo is a Nigerian journalist and writer based in Lagos, Nigeria.

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